When I get home from work and log on to my email, there’s a message waiting from me. From Ploughshares. Re: Your submission.
I let it sit. There are twenty or so other messages to read. Witty comments from friends, “We have received your resume” form messages from CareerBuilder, reminders of upcoming deadlines in the MFA program. News from my dad, who keeps me posted on family matters – changes of address, hospital stays, birth announcements and funerals.
And then – well. The dog needs to be loved (I have become adept at typing with one hand, petting with the other), the cats bookend me, reminding me that they need to be fed. Dishes from last night are still soaking in the sink, and laundry is piling up.
Look, I tell myself -- if I open the message, it’s either going to be a congratulations, and I’ll spend the next week too giddy with excitement to do anything as mundane as dog petting/cat feeding/dish washing/laundry folding. Or, which is much more likely, it’s a thanks-but-no-thanks, your work is lovely but not right for this magazine. And then I’ll have to go through my chores with a sense of bitterness rather than anticipation. So the message can wait.
Once upon a time, I updated my Facebook status with “Paula --- --- is officially a writer! She received her first rejection slip!” I do remember that even though it was a “no” – a typewritten “no,” as if it had traveled not only from Nebraska but also through a few decades – it was exciting because I had now joined the ranks of presumably every other modern writer. A quick surf of the Internet and you can find rejection letters to Sylvia Plath, Norman Mailer, Stephen King. Even The Diary of Anne Frank wasn’t immediately snatched up. Lord of the Flies, I remind myself, was ignored by something like eighteen publishers. So I laughed it off. I started keeping a stack of rejection letters – not enough to wallpaper a room, but enough of a motivation to keep me going.
Then a friend told me, meaning well, that there was a website that had published some of her work and would definitely love mine. Well, what the heck – I mailed a few pieces to the editor, who wrote back: “Our readers would not appreciate your work.” Ouch. I stewed about that one for a while, writing and rewriting snappy comebacks in my mind.
I moved on, had a few things published here and there. I got used to the roller coaster ride that is the literary market.
Then, from Redivider, a personal rejection note. One that told me the editors had debated my piece for some time before ultimately deciding against it. I was weirdly thrilled. It was an odd feeling, to think that perfect strangers – educated, literary, powerful strangers – had sat around a table discussing my short story. It would have been better, but maybe only slightly, if they had said yes.
Being published is important – I do recognize that. But I’ve also come to the place where I understand that a rejection letter is either an opportunity for me to reconsider the story (wow – this really does suck) or renew my faith in it (wow – do these editors do nothing but sit around and smoke crack all day?). A story that’s been rejected isn’t dead. I don’t feed the fireplace with the shredded manuscript, and that’s not only because I don’t have a fireplace. Rejection, acceptance… it’s part of the process. It just means I’m a writer.
Which is why, when I finally sit at my laptop again and open the email, I don’t curl into a little ball on the floor and cry. A credit in Ploughshares would be fantastic – and it will be, some day, when it happens.